In today’s world of viral Twitter threads and fast-moving news coverage that can almost instantly push legal disputes into the headlines, cases aren’t tried only in the courts, but in the media and the court of public opinion.
For lawyers who want to help their clients take charge of the storyline and shape their images, a litigation-specific public relations strategy is more important than ever. With it, lawyers can fine-tune their talking points and reach out to carefully selected media outlets—from the local TV news station to The New York Times—to educate journalists about a case’s legal considerations and the ramifications of a verdict in either direction.
The effort can quickly net high-profile coverage that echoes a client’s top-line messaging and steers the court of public opinion to their side. Law firms that don’t incorporate a well-planned litigation PR strategy could hurt their clients’ cases and causes.
“The filings, hearings, and trial proceedings are public—reporters will be in the courtroom, stories will be written, and your client and firm won’t be left out,” says Amy S. Merriweather, director of marketing and business development for Keker, Van Nest & Peters. “You and your client should take advantage of the opportunity to shape the narrative of any press story together, cautiously weighing the risks and communicating as a unified voice.”
But litigation PR isn’t just for clients. It’s also a valuable marketing tool for lawyers, along with their law firms and practice groups.
Reputation and brand, after all, are the primary ways that firms are winning new work, according to the 2019 Citi Hildebrandt Client Advisory. The report found that during 2010-2017, law firm growth was determined more by brand reputation than rates.
In fact, brand strength, along with product focus, is one of the most “highly rewarded traits” of a law firm in today’s market, the advisory says. There may be no better way to boost a law firm’s brand than through the visibility and publicity that can come from an effective litigation-focused PR campaign.
“If a lawyer wants to be perceived by clients, potential clients, and referral sources as the person to call in times of crisis, those clients need to become familiar with the lawyer’s experience and expertise,” Merriweather says. “Litigation PR can reinforce a lawyer’s credibility, demonstrate expertise, and serve as a reminder of the types of high-stakes cases lawyers want to attract.”
Here’s why litigation PR should be part of a law firm’s marketing strategy.
It’s free advertising.
Whether it’s in print or on digital outlets, television, or social media, every mention of your firm’s association with the case is free advertising. It signals to potential clients that you’re capable of not only handling prominent cases but also operating under the intense glare of the media spotlight.
“Every time a media outlet runs our firm’s name, particularly in connection with a successful outcome in one of the lawsuits we’re handling, it reinforces our brand,” says Paul Geller, founding partner of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. “News coverage sends a signal to the market about the caliber of cases we take on and the type of success future clients can expect.”
It tells prospective clients about your style.
Some lawyers can come off as aggressive and bombastic when quoted in the press; others as thoughtful and restrained. The way you interact with the media can say a lot about your style, and that’s why it’s critical to think about how you present yourself during interviews. Neither style is wrong. Either could be attractive to a prospective client, depending on their case and their personality and, in a way, help you self-select new clients that might more closely reflect your own approach.
It can associate you with a high-profile company …
Whether your client is the latest unicorn startup, a sprawling multinational firm, or the big-name business in your city, the relationship helps to wed your firm’s brand with that of the successful organization it represents. Each time your firm is mentioned in an article about the case, it sends a message to the market that you’re a key player in the industry and can take on those big cases.
… or signal you’re not scared to go up against the behemoths.
When you represent the little guy who is suing a high-profile business, it indicates to potential clients that you’re not afraid to handle those David-versus-Goliath cases—and that you have the resources to do it.
It builds relationships with reporters.
It can take years to cultivate relationships with busy journalists who are jumping from one story and deadline to the next. To quickly build those connections, law firms typically turn to a trusted PR consultant.
But, with a prominent case, those relationships can grow organically, as reporters eagerly seek out scoops and comments about the latest in the proceedings. Once you’ve established yourself as a reliable source, these same reporters will be more likely to come to you when they need an expert opinion about an unrelated legal topic—providing you with yet another opportunity to show your knowledge and firm’s expertise.
Existing reporter relationships also make it easier for you to promote a new story about your next case. When it comes to litigation PR, it’s always best to promote a case in the media early, because it increases your chances of securing coverage upon a favorable outcome. From the start, reporters will be educated on the issues at play and want to update their readers about the resolution.
It helps law firms promote their work elsewhere.
Even if you’re not pushing your clients’ cases in the media, having their approval to promote your litigation work for them is valuable as you seek new clients. Their praise of your work and the successful outcome of their cases can be turned into website testimonials, case studies, and other marketing collateral. Highlighting the caliber of your work also can help target lateral hires, who are eager to sign on with a firm that recognizes all the needs of today’s clients.
Effective litigation PR is both an art and a science. Lawyers shouldn’t rush up to the microphones without proper training. The media can eat you alive if you’re not accustomed to dealing with them, and you don’t want bad press for your client or your firm.
Appropriate times to reach out to the press include when a case is filed, when important motions are argued or decided, before trial, and even after a loss, says Merriweather.
“Seizing an opportunity to talk to the press, even if a judge or jury didn’t see the facts your way, can still provide a media boost to your reputation,” she says. “‘Couldn’t be reached for comment’ or ‘declined to comment’ serves no one, not a lawyer’s personal brand, nor a client’s position.”
Before moving forward, you must understand how media coverage can benefit a particular case without alienating the most important audience—the judge. You’ll also need to understand the ins and outs of working with the media, from how to create a snappy soundbite to what’s on and off the record. Learning how to talk to a reporter on background to support a case is a skill.
“Lawyers can limit their on-the-record comments to statements made in public proceedings, but they should take time to talk to reporters on background to explain any nuances,” Merriweather says.
That includes pointing out key witnesses, important exhibits, and portions of filings that are most significant to your client’s position to ensure balanced and accurate press coverage during litigation, she says. PR professionals can help, drawing up a playbook before the cameras ever point in your direction, and advising on individual cases.
Rules Are Changing
Despite the benefits of litigation PR for firms and their clients, some lawyers may still resist. The lingering old-school mentality that it’s unprofessional to talk about cases holds some back. Clients can be skittish, unwilling to have their name or company’s name splashed across the headlines. Fear is another factor—fear that it could backfire, and fear of the media itself.
It’s time to shift those mindsets. In today’s fast-paced media frenzy, the rules are changing. Clients—from big-name companies to individuals fighting for their livelihoods and freedoms—demand a comprehensive strategy for their litigation that includes support as they field calls from the media or frame their reputations in the court of public opinion.
Many law firms are using this strategy effectively to further their clients’ cases—and build their businesses at the same time.
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